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Animal Cruelty Series, Part 2: Animal cruelty cases hard to prosecute

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Posted on July 18, 2013 |
By Luke Whelan



Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on animal cruelty and how local government and animal welfare advocates deal with it. Click to read Part 1 and Part 3.

By LUKE WHELAN

ADDISON COUNTY — In January in Leicester a couple left their dogs outside their Dorie Lane home unattended during a cold spell that saw temperatures dip as low as minus 10 degrees.

One dog, a thin-coated boxer named Tyson, was tied to a post, suffered frostbite and nearly died. Luckily, the local humane investigator, Leicester animal control officer Paul Crosby, arrived on the scene and used his right to seize animals deemed in imminent danger of death. He took the dogs to a veterinarian’s office, where they fully recovered.

That story was told in Part 1 of this three-part series devoted to the issue of how Addison County and Vermont handle cases of animal cruelty.

The story of what happened after the pets were seized becomes more complicated. It helps to highlight a central conflict in pursuing animal cruelty investigations in Vermont and the lack of resources to carry them out.

Ideally, an investigation would have begun after Crosby seized the animals and criminal charges against the owners would have been brought. Many involved in the case believe a misdemeanor animal cruelty conviction would have been likely.

If convicted, under section 352 part b of Vermont’s animal cruelty statute, the guilty parties’ penalty could include a fine and a short jail sentence. Offenders might also be required to “forfeit any future right to own, possess, or care for any animal for a period which the court deems appropriate,” or to “participate in available animal cruelty prevention programs or educational programs, or both, or obtain psychiatric or psychological counseling, within a reasonable distance from the defendant's residence.”

But no investigation followed, and no charges were brought. After dialogue between Jackie Rose, then executive director of the Addison County Humane Society (ACHS), and Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster, all that came of the case was a forfeiture of the animals.

The Dorie Lane owners had to give up their dogs, but, with a clean record, they were free to go out and get new ones.

And they did.

According to West Rutland resident Dawn Boynton, these owners moved across the street from her on Pine Hill Road in late March along with a new pit bull mix. According to her, they have not trained the dog and frequently neglect it, letting it run free to terrorize the neighborhood.

“I am not breed prejudiced by any means. I know plenty of sweet pit bulls,” Boynton said. “This one just hasn’t been trained properly. It’s very aggressive.”

She described one incident in which the owners went away for around two days, leaving the dog tied up outside. The pit bull escaped its tether and began charging neighbors, and chasing the pet-friendly community’s dogs and cats. Another time the owners left the dog tied up it got its chain twisted. Boynton called the sheriff fearing it would strangle itself.

But up against specific language in the law and without concrete signs of neglect or harm done to others, local law enforcement and humane societies told Boynton they cannot do anything at this point.

“I’ve called everybody that I know of to call,” she said, adding that many of her neighbors had done the same. “We’ve all been told nothing can be done unless (the dog) hurts somebody.”

LOCAL RESPONSIBILITY

In some states, including Maine and Connecticut, government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture have animal welfare divisions that receive funding and resources for humane investigation. In other states, for example New York and Massachusetts, large and well-funded private organizations like SPCAs (Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) have created humane law enforcement departments with trained and paid officers who investigate animal cruelty cases.

But in Vermont, the animal cruelty statute does not create animal welfare divisions in government departments. Counties have modest humane societies and shelters at best, and none at worst. Animal cruelty investigation falls to local law enforcement, at-times overworked humane society employees, or volunteers.

Caledonia County in the Northeast Kingdom has no shelter and relies solely on volunteer organizations to carry out animal cruelty investigations. Addison County, where a building on Boardman Road hosts the Humane Society and the Homeward Bound Animal Welfare Center, fares better because their humane employees are willing to devote the time and energy to coordinate animal cruelty investigations, even without pay.

“Homeward Bound does not receive any funding for this service ... It is something they do simply because they care,” said Jackie Rose. She now directs the Duchess County SPCA in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which has fulltime humane law enforcement officers.

Private donors and foundations fund the ACHS, and currently the ACHS does not have the money to pay someone to investigate animal cruelty cases. The only humane society that has had the funding to take on a part-time humane investigator is the Humane Society of Chittenden County, which serves Chittenden and Grand Isle counties.

Humane societies in Vermont are hesitant to go to local governments in Vermont for funding.

“Vermont’s cost of living is one of the highest in the nation, and nobody wants to pay any higher taxes (for) controlling other people’s animals,” said Leicester’s Crosby, who acknowledges it can be hard to find money for proper equipment for animal cruelty investigations.

Furthermore, Vermont State Police often do not have the time or resources to deal with animal cruelty cases, especially if another agency, like the local humane society, is not able to do the initial legwork for them.

For example, when the Dorie Lane dogs were left outside in January, the Vermont State Police in Addison County were dealing with a string of burglaries in Panton.

“Our job is public safety, so our priority is obviously keeping you safe, keeping your girlfriend safe, keeping the people of Vermont safe,” said Sgt. Eugene Duplissis, who communicated with the ACHS about the neglect case. “There are laws for animal security, and that is something that we can enforce, and we do sometimes … But a dog with frostbite on its ear is certainly not a priority.”

Duplissis, who works with a police canine, expressed it from the homeowners’ point of view.

“The residents of Panton would be pretty pissed off if they found out I said, ‘OK, screw you guys because there is a dog with frostbite on its ears, and I need to go and take care of that,’” he said. “We (VSP) are not going to do that and I don’t think any of society wants us doing that.”

WHO SHOULD INVESTIGATE?

Furthermore, Duplissis contends that the humane society had the ability to continue investigating the case and bring charges to the state’s attorney themselves.

A 2002 addition to Vermont’s animal cruelty statute broadened humane officers’ power to carry out animal cruelty investigations, allowing officers to do everything from seizing an animal in imminent danger of death, as Crosby did in Leicester, to issuing search warrants and pursuing criminal charges.

“What we run into is I didn’t see these dogs, and I am not the one seizing them, and it’s already touched by the town officer who can take the case, and then it gets to the humane society who can take the case,” Duplissis said. “So, for the humane officer to call me and say, ‘No, no, no… you need to take the case’ — no, actually (the humane officer) can take the case. (They) are authorized to do it by the Legislature, and it was humane officers that actually fought to get the power to do this, so we want (them) to run with (cases like) this.”

Duplissis stressed that state troopers will give support and guidance to humane officers undertaking an investigation.

“That’s what we are here for; that’s our job to help them to do this, but again it’s help them do this, not take all these cases from them,” he said.

But Humane Society of the United States Northeastern Regional Director and Vermont Humane Federation board member Joanne Bourbeau questions whether it is appropriate for humane officers to issue search warrants and bring criminal charges.

“I think there is a big difference between having the authorityand having the expertise/training,” she wrote in an email. “Private shelter humane agents are not police officers, and those who work for a local shelter, and many ACOs I would imagine, don’t have training or expertise in this area.”

South Burlington Chief of Police Trevor Whipple, who has worked with Bourbeau and the VHF on addressing animal cruelty enforcement in Vermont, wondered about humane society employees’ qualifications.

“Certainly anyone who fits the definition of ‘humane agent’ has the legal authority to conduct investigations and to bring charges. What I struggle with is the question, ‘Should they?’” said Whipple. “Humane agents have widely varying levels of training, experience, support and resources … I venture to guess that most civilian humane agents have little experience with things such as collection and storage of evidence, rules of criminal procedure, rules of civil procedure, search and seizure, and more. Although a civilian humane agent can write a search warrant and recommend charges to the state's attorney, I doubt that many have the connections or resources to do so.”

Even seizing animals in imminent danger of death, as Crosby did on Dorie Lane, can be tricky, according to Jessica Danyow, who took over as executive director of the ACHS at the Homeward Bound Animal Welfare Center in June.

 “I like to caution people to be really conservative when making these judgments, because otherwise you’ve then just seized an animal without a search warrant and due process, and that’s illegal,” Danyow said.

In the case of the dogs on Dorie Lane, the lack of resources and confusion over who should investigate the case may have resulted in the owners escaping charges.   

Now, down in West Rutland, Boynton takes a golf club with her to get her mail or even to walk from the house to her car because she is so frightened of the new dog across the street.

“We’re so frustrated and I am so scared now,” she said, “and I can’t seem to get any help.”  

Part 3 of this series will look at efforts moving forward including ideas on how to improve animal cruelty enforcement from law enforcement, humane experts, and legislators.

Reporter Luke Whelan is a summer intern at the Independent.

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